Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Real History: Was the Indus Valley Civilisation peaceful?

An interesting video about the Indus Valley Civilisation and how they were perhaps not as peaceful as is often portrayed.

The idea that the seals were attached to something (loop holes on the back) is really interesting to me.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Elephant Queens & Tiger Kings - 6: Breaking into the City of Pearls

 Read the previous episode: Elephant Queens & Tiger Kings - 5: Arriving at the City of Pearls

In the last episode we (my friend Auko and I, Kiakro ) agreed to smuggle Areca Nuts into the City of Pearls for a man named Colpa. In return we'll each be given a bracelet that will give us the right of way in the city. We picked up the goods from the other side of the river and have just arrived back on the shore near the city.

We are hunched down by the canoe and Colpa explains that we can access the city through one of the canals that pass through the walls. It has a gate that can be prized open that will allow us access inside.

We pick up the canoe and make our way to the correct canal, drop it in and climb aboard. We paddle with our hands to make as little noise as possible. There are guards posted up on the walls but neither their oil lamps and torches nor the moon and stars illuminate the the night enough for them notice us. Still, we have to be silent as we approach the gate. 

Move: Face Danger with Stealth

Action Die: Roll 1d6 + Shadow (1) = 6+ 1 for a total of 7.

Challenge Dice: Roll 2d10 = 5 and 7.

Weak Hit. On a weak hit you succeed but face a troublesome cost. You are delayed, lose advantage or face a new danger. -1 Momentum.

We silently paddle up to the latticed gate in the wall. Colpa drops down into the water and swims to the left side, we can't see what he's doing but we hear him grunt and gasp, then he starts swearing. 

"They fixed the gap between the wall, I can't reach around to the rope for the counterweight. I don't think we can get through."

We have to figure out another way in.

Move: Gather Information with Wits

Action Die: Roll 1d6 + Wits (2) = 6 + 2 for a total of 8.

Challenge Dice: Roll 2d10 = 10 and 9.

This a Miss but I decide to burn all my momentum to turn it into a Weak Hit. The information complicates your quest or introduces a new danger, +1 Momentum.

I Ask the Oracle. Action: Demand, Theme: Corruption.

We all freeze when we suddenly hear another voice call out to us from the darkness beyond the gate.

"Well Colpa, you filthy Hyena! You didn't think I'd let you come in without paying what you owe me?"

"Balzar, what a pleasure, I was planning to come see you tomorrow and..."

"Be quiet. My men have been watching you sneaking about for weeks. What makes you think you can bypass my authority. I control what moves in and out of this city. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you to the crocodiles right now?"

The gate has now been raised and we are surrounded by spears and bows pointing towards us, motioning us to pass through. Balzar is easy to recognise, he is short stout man, wearing red dyed bark cloth trousers and a leopard skin around his shoulders. His dark hair is tied back and his face is adorned with black and red markings.

"Balzar, look what we have here. Three baskets of Areca Nuts, and I have a new source for more. I will take all the risk and we can both profit".

Balzar chuckles. 

"Yes, we could both profit. But not tonight. Men, take those baskets! I'm letting you go Calpo, but I expect the same haul every ten days, maybe I'll let you keep a little profit now and then along with your life. Now go, I don't want to see your face until you bring me more".

Balzar motions to Auko and I. And what are these two? 

"Oh, just escaped rowers I found. I don't know them at all. Do with them what you will". 

Balzar motions for us to come out of the canoe and we are hauled up on the side of the canal by his men.

"Well I can always use an extra pair of hands... or heads" Balzar chuckles.

Calpo heads out with the canoe and it seems we're once again no longer in control of our own fate. 

We're marched through the narrow streets of the city, across stone bridges and through small courtyards until we come to a larger building, one of the few built entirely from stone. Lit up with fires that are kept burning through the night. We are taken inside and down into the lower levels and pushed into room with several other men. 

I went back and read through my session zero notes where I established the particulars of the setting. The section on Status and Hierarchy is relevant to now:

3. Your culture has a loose social structure with a lot of opportunity for social mobility which is either inbuilt or due to external circumstances (war, natural disasters, depopulation etc.). This is a dynamic social environment with both positive and negative consequences. The risks are are great but so are the opportunities. Why is the society of your culture not as stratified as others? Has it always been this way or did this situation come about recently? What are the challenges and opportunities?

This explains why Balzar has locked us up and not disposed of us. There have been decades of wars and famines resulting in a steady depopulation of the lands. Only recently has civilisation found a precarious stability from which it can start to grow again. Society is in relative flux. Where before the social casts and hierarchies were rigid and strictly enforced, now there is some flexibility and opportunity. A person can make their own way in this world, but it will take a lot of work and some luck.

I think that attaining my freedom and perhaps citizen of this city (or another) will make for a good vow so that I can become more self-directed. In the mean time Balzar will make for a good 'patron' of sorts.

The door behind us is bolted shut. We look around and see a couple of read mattresses, some vases of water and two small oil lamps. But other than that the room is bare. We find a corner to lie down and do our best to sleep. As I drift off I make a vow to Auko and myself that I will become a citizen or free man. 

Move: Swear a Vow (Extreme Rank)

Action Die: Roll 1d6 + Heart (1) and +1 because I share a bond with Auko = 6 + 2 for a total of 8.

Challenge Dice: Roll 2d10 = 1 and 1.

A strong hit and a match! I am emboldened and it is clear what I must do. Take +2 momentum.

I decide to roll on some Oracle tables.

Major Plot Twist: The truth of a relationship is revealed.

Settlement Trouble: A rival settlement

Settlement Trouble: Urgent expedition

Action: Move

Theme: Relationship

I think this has something to do with my friend Auko.  I'm not entirely sure of the details just yet but I'll see how things play out.

We're kept in the room for several days with no indication of how long we will be kept there or for what purpose. Although we are brought fresh water and food twice a day, which keeps us placated.

Then on the 4th day one of the guards comes to us asking if any of us speaks the language of the Longheads? There will soon be a mission to one of their cities to trade and conduct diplomacy and the expedition will be in need of interpreters. Auko enthusiastically explains that his home land was near a Longhead city and that he learned some of their language growing up. The guard seems interested to know more and he is taken out of the room. I sit and wait for a while until he is brought back. He explains that he has put in a word for me and how useful I could be on this expedition because of my boating and healing skills.

A couple of days later we are taken out of the room and upstairs together with a couple of other men. In the light of day we finally get a good look at the building we are in. The ceilings in the corridors are high, as tall as four people. Many of the walls are covered in beautiful murals that detail the achievements of the kings and queens of this city and the stories of their gods. There are alcoves with statues draped with flowers and surrounded by offerings. The smell of incense is in the air and the sound of priests chanting. We are brought into a large in the middle of which is a raised platform on which is situated a beautifully carves bench. On it sits Balzar, flanked by an intimidating looking guard and behind him a servant that is slowly waving a fan.

We are pushed down to our knees and Balzar begins to speak:

"Our holy queen is sending diplomatic mission to a city of the Longheads, the one they call Nanbeg Gakwha about 10 days up the Green river. The precise details are of no concern to you. All you need to know is that it's been determined that each of you have skills that will be of use to the expedition. Should you return the queen and the city will bestow upon you proper gratitude and reward. We are grateful that you have volunteered to further elevate the glory of the City of Pearls".

One of the others manages to exclaim 'What do you mean, "should we return"?' before receiving the but of spear to his stomach, leaving him groaning on the floor. 

Balzar shouts: "Silence! It is an honour to serve the city and the queen. You leave in three days. Men, take them away."

And with that we're all pulled to our feet and marched off, this time to another room that's above ground and slightly more accommodating. There are windows that let in light, bowls of various kinds of food; fruit, nuts and dried fish and on the floor comfortable looking bedding.

Auko, in a cynical tone says: "I guess they want us to be well rested and in good strength for this journey. We wouldn't want to let this chance to honour the great queen go to waste would we?".

We dive into the food that's been set out, enjoying what we can in the moment in case we don't see the likes of it for a while.

Auko's health is raised back up to +4.


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Real History: World's Oldest Known Cave Paining Found In Indonsia

 Archaeologists have discovered the world’s oldest known cave painting: a life-sized picture of a wild pig that was made at least 45,500 years ago in Indonesia.

The finding, described in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday, provides the earliest evidence of human settlement of the region.

Read the full article and see a picture here: World's oldest known cave painting found in Indonesia

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Shout Out: War Elephants

Another shout out, this time to a set of articles about the use of war Elephants in ancient times. War Elephants are useful but rely on a more sophisticated logistical setup not least because most Elephants are not ready until they are several decades old.

To sum up: elephants were powerful, but by no means unstoppable weapons in war. While a well-deployed corps of war elephants could pose a very tough tactical problem to an enemy army, well-trained infantry could overcome elephants at a fraction of the logistic and economic cost. Elephants remained in long-term use as weapons where they were both cheaper, but also crucially where their display reinforced the power and prestige of warrior-aristocrats and especially kings.

War Elephants, Part I: Battle Pachyderms

War Elephants, Part II: Elephants against Wolves

War Elephants, Part III: Elephant Memories

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Sundaland Deviant Art Inspiration Board

Artwork by Matthew Watts, click for a larger view.

I've created a new inspiration board on Deviant Art which hosts lots of great artwork that is very evocative of the Sundaland setting. You can find it here

And in case you missed it here's my Pinterest board: Pinterest: Sundaland Inspiration Board

Friday, November 13, 2020

Real History: The Megaliths of Bada Valley

There's a valley in Sulawesi that contains lots of weird megaliths. It's funny that I was imagining these kinds of large statues in my game of Elephant Queens & Tiger Kings. It turns out they really exist in this part of the world!

Friday, November 6, 2020

Shout Out: Practical Polytheism

I don't write much about religion because like magic I think that the more you try to clearly define everything the less interesting it becomes. There should be ambiguity and unfamiliarity about it in order to keep it somewhat mysterious. Only the priests and religious leaders understand all the intricate rituals necessary to appease or ask favours from the gods, and even they don't always get it right.

But I found this series of articles about Polytheistic religions really interesting. It mostly explains things through examples of the ancient Roman and Greek religions but I'm sure a lot of it could apply to religions from other eras. Personally I like to make Astrology an important aspect of the religion because ancient peoples were fascinated with the motions of the planets and stars and according to writers like Graham Hancock monuments like the Pyramids or Ankor Watt were built on top of even older sites that were intended to mirror or help track what could be seen in the night sky.

Practical Polytheism 1: Knowledge

Practical Polytheism 3: Practice

Practical Polytheism 2: Polling the Gods

Practical Polytheism 4: Little Gods and Big People

The articles go into quite a bit of depth and I highly recommend you read them if you want inspiration for adding realistic Polytheism to your setting.

But if you want a quick overview of the writer's conclusions he provides the summary which I'm quoting here:

  • Polytheistic religion is less about ethics or worldview and more about achieving practical results, by venerating, pleasing or appeasing the right gods.
  • Because many gods can produce practical results for you – both good and bad! – you cannot pick and choose, but must venerate many of the relevant gods.
  • A society learns how to do this by doing: successful practices are codified into tradition and repeated, creating a body of knowledge about the gods which is carried on through generations by tradition.
  • Rituals, including sacrifices, vows and offerings, in polytheistic religions are intended to produce concrete, specific, and usually earthly results for the participants or their broader community.
  • They do this through the mechanism of do ut des, whereby the individual or community offers something (sacrifice, votive, etc) to the god in exchange for the given result.
  • The god can either accept that bargain (the ritual succeeds) or refuse it (the ritual fails). The humans may impose qualifications and legalism on the bargain, but of course, the god may also just refuse.
  • Finally, the rituals are performed with exactness, focusing on orthopraxy – correct ritual practice. Failure to perform any element of the ritual correctly will likely cause the ritual to fail.
  • Gods in a polytheistic system are often immanent and present in human society; they are (powerful, mysterious and sometimes difficult) members of the community.
  • Consequently, they expect to be consulted for their opinion on important matters, but they can also be a source of good information on matters both large and important, or small and personal.
  • This process is an act of communication, not passive observation: the gods can refuse to answer, or send conflicting signals or even lie, if it suits their ends, although for the most part, so long as the traditional forms are followed, the god consulted will render their advice faithfully.
  • There is a fantastic diversity of methods in consulting the gods. We’ve left out entire categories here – mostly oracular statements – but each culture has its own systems.
  • Because these systems of religious practice are based on knowledge and on repeating what works, they are readily capable of borrowing gods and rituals from foreign cultures which seem to work, including (but certainly not limited to) divination practices.
And that finally gets us to the biggest take-away of this series, which is that these systems make a very real sort of sense. The common temptation as moderns reading history is to assume that everyone in the past was just stupid (as if we don’t believe similarly ridiculous things!) or that all of the ‘smart’ ones (and so often ‘smart’ is unthinkingly equated with ‘rich elites’) viewed this all cynically. As I have said before, and I will say again, it is generally safe to assume that people in the past believed their own religion.